Rudolf Anthony Scerri, Carmelite
(The following is an excerpt from a larger document in which Fr Anthony Scerri reminisces on his 90 years on this earth, most of them as a Catholic priest. He is currently attached to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel church in Wentworthville, NSW. I have always thought that his homilies were always thought provoking, more the work of a wannabe theologian but nonetheless deep and meaningful. In any case, listening to him, I hope he has woken up dormant Catholic minds. In this piece, he clinically examines the past and the future of the Catholic Church)
A NOTE ON THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH
Pope Francis has ushered in the third Church.
The First Church
The first Church was the Apostolic Church, the Church of the Apostles and of their immediate successors. It was a Church conscious of being the baptised, the chosen ones who had to live the Good News of the risen Christ in their daily lives, and conscious of being the ones sent by Jesus to spread the Good News of the crucified and risen Christ to all nations. These were the people of God who kept recalling all that Jesus said and did. and tried to understand and interpret what was happening in their individual lives, in their Christian communities, and in society in the light of what Jesus had said and done. Not much speculative theology. Just the Scriptures and Jesus.
It was the Church of the poor and a persecuted Church, people who lived in fear of powerful rulers, who wanted to eliminate them. They hid in catacombs, but willingly and even joyfully went to their martyrdom. They were a people persecuted by the powerful Roman Empire, which ruled most of the known world then.
The first Church was the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Acts of the Apostles and of the letters of the Apostles. It was the Church of the resurrection, of people who had experienced the presence of the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread, and who could not but proclaim the risen Jesus to one and all.
The first Church was close to Jesus and to the Apostolic heritage.
The Second Church
At the beginning of the fourth century, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. This was a cataclysmic event in the life of the Church. From being a persecuted Church and a Church of the poor, it became the favoured Church and the privileged Church.
Constantine gave back to Christians all properties (mostly churches), which had been confiscated by the State, He looked on the Christians favourably and promoted Christians to high positions of authority. He exempted the clergy from paying taxes and gave them other privileges. He made Sunday a day of rest, not just for Christians, but for everyone in the whole Empire. He called the Council of Nicaea to suppress the heresies of Donatism and Arianism in his empire. He built basilicas, including the first St. Peter’s in Rome, and the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The Church was no longer the Church of the poor, or of the persecuted Church, or the Church of martyrs, but a privileged Church, which shared in the power, wealth, control, and glory of the emperor. The Church began, and continued for centuries, to imitate the system of the Roman Empire. The Church began to centralise power in the hands of the Roman Pontiff. From now on, all decisions concerning faith and liturgical practice were to be made by the Roman curia. Everyone had to follow the laws and the liturgy of Rome. The pope took on the title of Pontifex Maximus, which was the title used by Roman emperors to remind people that they were divine. The bishops and cardinals took on secular titles such as your eminence, your excellency, your grace, and my lord. They began to wear mitres, and hold gold and silver croziers, and to wear all sorts of royal purple paraphernalia, and to live in marble palaces, and to have people, usually lowly religious sisters, to attend to their every need. Those who were supposed to be pastors, living and mingling with the poor, the sick, the needy, as Jesus did, became royalty far from the crowds, far from the people of God. In fact, in the Middle Ages, Cardinals and bishops ruled dukedoms and lived like dukes and lords. In some, even many, cases they still live-in palaces and are served by a bevy of attendants. As Jesus would put it, they love to wear phylacteries and to be saluted and honoured by people in public.
As General Councillor of the Order for twelve years, I had occasion to visit many bishops and papal representatives in many countries. With a couple of exceptions, one in Liberia and one in Kerala, they all lived in palaces. Their excuse was that they had inherited these palaces from the past and were seemingly unaware of the image that this presented to both the faithful and non-Catholics alike.
The second Church imposed uniformity throughout the spreading world in the name of unity. The Church became a control freak! It was more interested in preserving its power and control by making laws after laws after laws that bound people under pain of mortal sin, than in following the teachings and deeds of Jesus. Scripture took second place to the philosophy of Aristotle and the theology of Thomas Aquinas, great and good as these two historical figures are. The Church became a replica of the secular Roman Empire with a coating of religiosity.
Let me add quickly that the Church also has done and does much good in the fields of education, health and many and varied charitable works. However, these good works have all originated from the zealous and concerned religious and lay people within the Church, not from the Roman Curia, which has only been concerned with regulating and controlling these movements of good works by requiring their approval after exercising censorship over the statutes of these organisations or Congregations, to make sure that the statutes are in accordance with the laws of Rome.
Catholics have lived with this centralised, controlling, repressive, at times oppressive body called the Roman curia, often erroneously referred to as the Church, for seventeen centuries to this present day. Somehow, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has continued to be in his Church, especially in the breaking of bread, and somehow, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the people of God have remained faithful to the Word of God and to the Good News of the risen Christ.
The Third Church
Then, God sent a man whose name is Francis
I am not a prophet nor am I a clairvoyant. I cannot see into the future of the Church, but I can read the present signs of the birth of the third Church. When Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope, he took the name of Francis, the poor, the humble, the unpretentious Francis. When he came out to greet the people from the balcony of St. Peter’s, He refused to wear the cappa magna, the long red cape worn by dignitaries to signify their rank. He just wore a simple white soutane. He greeted the people in the way everyone greets people with “Buon giorno,” which translated into Australian would be “G’day!” When he was shown to his papal apartments, he exclaimed that 300 persons could live in them, and decided to move to the Vatican guesthouse, Santa Marta, where he occupies a bedroom and a sitting room where he can receive guests.
When Francis gives a speech or a homily, he does not quote Vatican documents or prominent theologians. He speaks of Jesus, what Jesus said, what Jesus did, and how this applies to us today. Francis is obviously an intimate friend of Jesus, and is leading the Church, the people of God, to be intimate friends of Jesus too. He is deeply concerned for the health of our planet and sees humans’ abuse of nature as a sin, but he also sees God’s hand in whatever happens on earth and to the earth. Francis is trying to bring the Church back to its roots, that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to avoid the theories of theologians. Not that he despises theologians, but that he recognises that theology is a science that deals with theories about the nature of God and other theological matters. Theologians only put forward theories. That is the nature of every science as it progresses in knowledge. However, that is not what the Church is about. The Church is about Jesus, the Good News.
Recently, the bishops of the Amazonian region held a synod together with the Pope concerning the ordination of married deacons being allowed to be ordained to the priesthood. At the end of the synod, I think that everyone was anxiously expecting that Francis would say yes or no. Including myself. Francis, however, wrote to the bishops saying to them, in effect, that it was not for him to make the decision of whether these married deacons could be ordained priests or not, but that it was their responsibility to come to a decision together. Decentralisation! Collegiality!
The third Church is going to be quite different from what we have known and suffered for seventeen centuries. It will be a more decentralised Church; it will be an enculturated Church, where I shall no longer have to be a Roman Catholic, but an Australian Catholic. I am not and have never been a Roman Catholic; I was a Maltese Catholic in my youth and am now an Australian Catholic! The only Roman Catholics are the Catholics living in Rome. I am Australian, and, therefore, must live and express my faith in my Australian way. I am Catholic because I am united in a bond of love with all my brothers and sisters who believe in Jesus in the world.
The third Church will gradually shed the paraphernalia inherited from the Roman Empire and from the Middle Ages: the mitres, the croziers, the Roman liturgical and hierarchical vestments. The third Church will revise the Sacraments so that they reflect the love and mercy and deep understanding of human nature of Jesus. The third Church will modernise the language and music of the liturgy. It will take time, perhaps a century or even longer, because so many people in the Church, both clerical and lay, who are attached to the old ways and consider any change as being heretical. These people feel comfortable and safe in a Roman-medieval Church and they We departed from Sydney have put up the sign, “please do not disturb”! It will take time but come it will. Francis has set the wheels in motion. Our faith is in Jesus. I believe in Jesus not in the many documents that come out of the Vatican, not in the Catholic catechism, not in Canon Law, but in Jesus as revealed in the Gospels. It will be a Church of pastors who go down to the plain with their sheep and lead them to the green pastures of the Gospels. I believe that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church into a bright future. God bless Pope Francis and give him long life.
The Golden Years
Now I am in my so-called golden age (or, according to Shakespeare, in my second childhood!) I am quite content with my life now. God has blessed me with a busy, varied, interesting, and, I hope, in some small way, fruitful life. I am grateful God from the depths of my heart. In my present quiet and reflective life, I have come to truly feel and enjoy the presence and friendship of Jesus in my every moment. I talk to him frequently during the day. At other times I am content just to be with him in loving silence. The Scriptures have taken on a new meaning for me because I have realised that they are talking about my beloved Friend. When I read the Gospels to myself, I sometimes replace the third person pronouns with second person pronouns. Why would I be reading about Jesus when he is present with me and in me in the present moment? When I read the Gospels, I do not read, “Jesus said to his disciples…”, but “Jesus, I hear you saying to me now…”. Just one of those quirks, which I like because it brings me closer to my beloved Jesus!
All that remains for me is to enjoy the presence of God in my life and to praise and glorify him every day and every moment. Thank God, I am still in good health for as long as it pleases Him to bestow it on me so as to go on serving His people as much as I able to, and above all for me to grow in love of Jesus and to make him loved by others. I really only want what God wants of me.
I am lucky to still have one sister, Julia, who is a holy and a beautiful, warm, welcoming person. She is seven years older than me, so, she too, is further on in her golden years! We visit each other every afternoon on our iPad, and meet whenever there is a family gathering. Julia and I have wonderful nephews and nieces whom we love dearly and who love us back, and who are always willing to help us. They would never think of celebrating an anniversary or any other occasion without inviting Julia and me, and coming to pick us up and bring us back home. I have tried to keep up with all my grand nephews and grand nieces, but I gave up with the great-grand nephews and great-grand nieces, and now, I believe, there are great-great-grand nephews and great-great-grand nieces. There is something in the Bible about being blessed to the third and fourth generation. Well, I have been blessed in this way.
I try to keep my intellectual interests going, but it is not easy since I am gradually losing my sight due to macular degeneration. I am also becoming hard of hearing. Losing my sight has been a bit of a handicap because I can no longer read books. But I cannot complain. God has been good in lending me my eyes and ears for such a long time. Modern technology has also come to my aid, for my eyes in the form of a computer and an iPad which enable me to read the Mass in bold and large characters and to be able to read and write documents; and, for my ears, in the form of hearing aids.
I keep recalling the words of Pope John Paul II to us Carmelites at an audience with him: As we were about to leave the audience hall, he said to us: “Teach us to pray”. By ‘us’ he meant, of course, the people of God. I feel humbled that as a Carmelite I am asked to be a man of prayer, a man who must teach others to pray. We must always pray, as Jesus commanded us, but we must always grow in our prayer and not stop at the Third Mansion of St. Teresa of Avila.
I am now living the last chapter of my life. I have no idea how many or how few years are left for me to live on this earth This is, of course, as God sees fit. If he wishes me to stay a little longer, then I am happy to wait. If he wishes for me to join him soon, then I shall be most blessed because, whenever the time comes, I believe that my beloved Mother of Carmel, whom I have loved and tried to serve these brief years of my life, will come to take me by the hand with her into the bosom of the most Blessed Trinity.
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.